Of the 35 Fresno State players selected in the NFL draft during Bulldogs coach Jim Sweeney tenure, receiver Henry Ellard arguably might have had the most prosperous pro career.
And Ellard, who ranks 10th in career receiving yards in NFL history, said he owes much of his success from lessons he while playing for Sweeney.
So when Ellard learned of Sweeney’s passing at 83 years old last week and of the ceremony scheduled at 1 p.m. today at Bulldog Stadium, he made sure to rearrange his schedule to attend the event.
“He always knew how to get the best of his players,” said Ellard, who played at Fresno State from 1979-1982 and is currently the receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints. “Coach Sweeney had great knowledge of the game. He was great at teaching you the little things. It stuck with me.”
Ellard recalled during one summer training camp of having difficult catching zipping passes from his quarterbacks.
“They were fastballs – I mean fast balls!” Ellard said. “I couldn’t catch them.”
Sweeney pulled Ellard aside and reminded him how fast-thrown footballs, like in fastballs in baseball, tend to rise. So Ellard adjusted his hands and always anticipated footballs sailing higher than expected.
“Just teaching you what seems like little things but it’s the little things that can go a long ways,” Ellard said. “Coach Sweeney, he was great at identifying the problems and helping fix them.”
Ellard went on to set almost every Fresno State receiving record in 1982 and led the nation with 1,510 receiving yards and became a second-team All-American.
Ellard then got drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Rams and spent 15 years in the NFL. When Ellard retired 1998, the three-time Pro Bowler ranked third in career receiving yards. Ellard, who is not in the Hall of Fame, was known for using his jumping ability to reel in high passes, along with superior skills as a route runner.
I covered Fresno State football for the last nine of coach Jim Sweeney’s 19 seasons, and I long lost count the number of college beat reporters from other newspapers who said they envied me.
The Western Athletic Conference at the time actually had several cool personalities as football coaches, such as Utah’s Ron McBride and Wyoming’s Joe Tiller.
But there was only one Jim Sweeney. There will ALWAYS be only one Jim Sweeney.
As much as my heart beats for high school sports, my Bee career that now counts 35 years will always be highlighted by the time spent with Jim.
And I emphasize TIME.
Jim, who died Friday at 83, had an open door policy with me. He gave me countless, unconditional hours, and it wasn’t as if he had nothing else to do.
Besides being great friends who deeply respected each other’s families, a big part of this was Jim’s interest in educating me — his interest in educating reporters in general.
He liked to read, and he wanted to help those who wrote.
Never did he deny me an interview. Never did he deny a request to draw up Xs and Os on the greaseboard. Never did he deny an answer to a question.
Never did he deny me his hand with that vice-like grip — accompanied with a finger snap, of course.
Seems like yesterday when we walked off Jack Murphy Stadium following that final game against San Diego State on Nov. 23, 1996.
He threw his left hand around my shoulders as we walked from the 50 to 45 to 40 to 35 to 30 to 25 to 20 to 15 to 10 to 5 to the end zone, through the tunnel and out.
What an extraordinary ride it was.
Lord, how I was fortunate.